Abstract: In 1859, European men of science reached a consensus that overthrew traditional chronologies and asserted that humans had existed on Earth for upwards of hundreds of thousands of years. For Australian historians and archaeologists, the consensus on human antiquity was an intellectual revolution that would not be fully realised for another one hundred years. The reality of Australia’s extensive Aboriginal occupation, it is argued, was not ‘discovered’ or broadly understood until the radiocarbon dating and professional archaeology of the 1960s. Until this point, settler perceptions placed Aboriginal Australians at only a few thousand years old.

This paper contests the claim it took a century to apply an understanding of human antiquity to Australia's Aboriginal peoples, and argues that between 1860 and 1960, human antiquity and Aboriginal antiquity became two distinct concepts. Australia’s human antiquity was frequently proven to contemporary scientific standards. Aboriginal antiquity, however, transitioned from proven, to not proven, to proven only by specific tribes or disembodied objects of material culture; turning on a dime of racial politics and shifting methodologies. Scientists could therefore claim a deep human past for Australia while simultaneously leaving a question mark over the existence and longevity of Aboriginal peoples. By tracing this complex history, this paper subverts conventional narratives of apparent ignorance to reveal an insidious process of intellectual dispossession that Australian scientists were consciously embroiled in.

Author bio: Dr Amy Way is a Lecturer in History at Griffith University. With expertise in Australian, Aboriginal, and intellectual history, she specialises in the history of human antiquity and deep time in Australia, particularly its conceptualisation within geology, archaeology, anthropology and public discourse. Amy received the Australian Historical Association’s Ann Curthoys Prize (2021) for her study of Aboriginal antiquity in Australian anthropology, and in 2022, was awarded the inaugural Lyndall Ryan Thesis Prize for her research on human antiquity in Australia. Amy is also a Collaborating Scholar with the Research Centre for Deep History at the Australian National University, Canberra, and a Visiting Fellow with the New Earth Histories Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.